Wednesday, November 12, 2008

the intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism

This automaker bailout discussion is precisely what I was getting at here and here. And again, conservatism, even in it's most disciplined forms, fails. If Robert Reich is to be believed, there are some 3 million people employed in direct connection with the Big Three. There are some 25 million employed in indirect connection with the Big Three. Even if we were just to restrict ourselves to the actual employees of the three root companies, we are talking about thousands and thousands of people working for, and hundreds of thousands of people in the immediate families of people working for, the American auto industry. A full fledged collapse of these three companies like the one that is currently possible would cause incalculable human hardship, true economic devastation for many thousands of people.

Now that's not the only salient factor. It could indeed be the case that the responsible way forward would be not to bail out the car companies. But I've read around on lots of conservative blogs who are arguing against these bailout plans. And most of them have nothing to say on the topic of the human costs. The prudent action for our country may or may not be bailing out the car companies. But integrity demands that the people who are arguing not to talk honestly and openly about this enormous human cost. Instead, I see evasion, elision, qualification, equivocation, and ignoring.

Conservatism still strikes me as being deeply unwilling or unable to discuss the social costs of its preferred policies, and until that intransigence is either changed or adequately justified it speaks to a great failing at the heart of the conservative enterprise.


q said...

Just curious because I don't know, but any idea what the economic impact might be if the automakers declared bankruptcy? I mean, bankruptcy doesn't mean the business stops existing, so not all of those people would actually lose their jobs. And obviously, there are other issues for those who retain their jobs, such as lower wages and fewer benefits.

Freddie said...

I'm not qualified to say. I just know that those kinds of questions need to be asked, and arguing without reflecting on them, while politically convenient, is not fair.

Anonymous said...


1. How this is supposed to represent intellectual bankruptcy is beyond me. Heartlessness, sure. I'll just chalk it up to grandiose blog post titles.

2. I note that you didn't post any comments in McArdle's western New York post. Did you read it or do you also count it as elision, evasion, etc.?

3. Have you considered that people have considered these costs and still consider it a bad idea? Have you considered that they think that there will be a higher human cost if we decide to bail out the Big 3 further? -K.

Conor said...

I've responded at The Confabulum, but it should also be noted that it isn't only conservatives who oppose a bailout of the automakers.

For example,

Ben I said...


I'm not familiar with a Macroeconomics 101 class that doesn't acknowledge the concept of 'winners and losers' in any intervention (or, correspondingly, lack thereof). This concept is expanded upon, not dropped, at higher levels. Would you entertain the possibility that the economics-minded conservatives take the human cost for granted because it's inherent in even elementary-level policy training?

By the way, I don't doubt that there are those on the Right heartless enough or unaware enough not to know or care about the human cost. But 'Conservatives' covers a big patch of intellectual land on these questions.

- Ben I

Anonymous said...

I don't think the point is whether or not you end up supporting or opposing the bailout - it's whether in coming to your conclusion you acknowledge the massive human costs associated with the automakers going under and factor that into your decision-making. But yes, McArdle's response to being called a heartless New Yorker is an exception to this pattern - although it does suggest that the experience of seeing the region she grew up collapse economically despite government assistance has left her convinced that no government intervention can ever make more than a temporary difference.

Dennis Sanders said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Freddie. I've been upset at how some conservatives seem to not care about what could happen in the terms of human costs should the Big Three collaspe. Coming from Michigan, I've seen the human costs up close.

I've written more about this at my blog:

ryan said...

Yeah, this is one point where I think that your interlocutors have the better part of the argument. I don't think anyone is arguing that further collapse in the auto industry would be easy on anyone. I also don't think that anyone is ignoring the fact that yes, the UAW happens to represent tens of thousands of works, many of whom have families, etc., even if they don't talk about it as much as you would like. The consistent argument is, "Yes, this is bad, but trying to 'save' those jobs would make things worse." Failing to offer solutions for that result is problematic to be sure, but it isn't disingenuous or "intellectually bankrupt." As talking about issues that are important to Freddie as much as Freddie would like them to be talked about isn't really an essential part of a coherent intellectual system, I think they can get away with this.

I think a much more pointed criticism you might mount is against the largely unsupported conservative assumption that attempts to help are counterproductive but offer. It's almost pure ideology, independent of empirical research. If there is a locus of bankruptcy, it's there.

But before you jump there, it's worth pointing out that the assumption that helping is productive is just as unsupported most of the time. Unless you want to posit a moral duty to always, everywhere, attempt to alleviate suffering regardless of whether doing so actually causes more suffering (and I don't think anyone, including you, will buy that; it's just not something that can be taken seriously), your assertion that helping these people is inherently better than not is just as shaky as the opposite assumption. Glass houses and thrown stones, etc.